An Update on SSB

An Update on SSB

By Richard Strong, Director, Minnesota State Services for the Blind (SSB)

(Editor’s Note:  This presentation was given at the Semiannual Convention of the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota on May 8, 2010.)

Good morning Federationists!

Thank you for this opportunity to update you on developments at your state agency for the blind.  Since your last convention in October, there have been a few changes at SSB.

Finally, after a long and thorough search I was honored in late December to be selected to serve as SSB’s Director.  It is a position I do not take lightly.  I realize better than many, the role SSB does and can play.  It can be a positive force in changing what it means to be blind in Minnesota.  And it can be a detriment to positive change.  I will do my best to shape SSB as a positive force for all blind Minnesotans.  And I need, I seek and I ask your help in doing so.

Enough about me.  Let me tell you about happenings at SSB by touching on major activities in our various work units.

Workforce Development Unit

SSB is committed to improving outcomes for customers served by the program.  We are taking specific action to do so:

  • We are reviewing data from past years, looking for service patterns that might explain the low success rate — Cornell, Southern Illinois and Hunter College are involved.  Hunter indicates it will be another four-six weeks before they complete their analysis.
  • A State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind (SRC-B) Task force, with Jan Bailey as Chair along with members Judy Sanders, Tom Scanlan, and Steve Jacobson from the SRC-B as well as Shawn Mayo, Kathy Hagen and Sharon Monthei along with Pam Brown and I, will be reviewing the results from the universities and looking at additional elements to help answer the question: “Why so few persons leave SSB with an employment outcome?”
  • Specific activities to improve outcomes are also underway inside the Workforce Development Unit itself including:
    • Revision of philosophy and practice to recognize the need people have for time to adjust to their blindness and attend to other personal and medical issues;
    • Many of us recall the story Jan told at her retirement thank-you event in this room about not giving up on people too soon.  We have taken her concept to heart and are reinforcing the need to stay in touch — not be a pest but stay in touch — with persons who are not quite ready for ATB (Adjustment to Blindness) and not quite ready to move forward.  We want to make certain they have the chance to stay with the SSB program and not be closed prematurely.
    • Putting in place improved procedures for our upfront and initial contact with customers and a review of cases prior to closure to see if there is more we could have done/options overlooked.
    • Improving services to youth of transition age.
      • SSB 101 was held last Saturday with about half a dozen young persons and their parents and siblings attending an Introduction to SSB and their future with the vocational rehabilitation program.
      • We are working to reach out to youth and ensure that during their school years they attain a firm foundation for the transition to the post-secondary world of higher education and employment.
      • Looking forward to working with the NFB this fall on a joint outreach and education event for youth of transition age.

Assistive and Adaptive Technology Unit:

Staffing is increasingly stable with Jesse Anderson, the unit’s newest member, now up to speed as a replacement for Carl Andor who retired last fall.

We have reviewed and, with some adjustments, are implementing recommendations and guidelines developed by the Technology Workgroup.  Specifically, we are:

  • Updating existing qualifying test instructors must pass in order to teach particular software applications.
  • Continuing to develop new tests for A&AT so all trainers will be recertified in the coming months;
  • Moving to provide students the access technology packages (hardware and software) needed by them during training.  Along with these packages will be the expectation that, as part of training, students do homework as practice of skills taught is essential for learning to stick.

We will again be working with the Summer Transition Program; ensuring students have the required access technology in their dorm setting.

We continue work with other state agencies to establish accessibility standards consistent with national and statutory requirements for all new software the state develops or purchases.  This includes the new state government wide financial system (SWIFT) now under development.

The Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) software developers are getting basic training on JAWS.  They will not be experts but will have a much firmer appreciation of the need to build access into any product they develop.


Audio Services:

  • We are looking seriously at producing text-to-speech materials.  We want to see if we can bring them to market in a cost-effective way that meets the needs of our customers.
    • We have looked at costs for two workstations and the volunteer and staff resources required.
    • We’re nearly completed a market analysis of student/user needs and an assessment of the “competition” — whose producing what type of product in what format?
    • Thus far, things look promising and we anticipate moving forward with this effort later this year.
  • We are nearly done stabilizing the hardware and software systems in our media production efforts.  We have recently upgraded our ten-year-old hardware that was well beyond its “end of life.”

Radio Talking Book (RTB):

  • Working with the SRC-B’s Communication Center Committee to analyze results of an RTB customer satisfaction study to see how we can improve programming and other aspects of the RTB service.
  • We are distributing the new radios in northwest Minnesota and working with Minnesota Public Radio to adjust hardware at transmission sites statewide to accommodate the new radios.  We will continue with statewide distribution throughout the year.

Braille Section:

The section is pretty close to having a full complement of permanent staff.  In addition, we are looking to replace some of our outdated and almost antique braille production equipment.

Senior Services Unit (SSU)

  • The number served by SSU continues to increase and we are currently well ahead of where we were at this time last year.
  • We are in the final steps of a personnel classification review of some positions and will make any required adjustments that result from that review.
  • We are equipping Greater Minnesota offices with computers with Zoomtext and ensuring staff can assist customers with screen enlargement products.
  • We have produced and distributed statewide a DVD to help staff of assistive living sites work more effectively with blind residents.

Rehabilitation Services Administration Monitoring Review

The Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) conducts a review once every three years of each state vocational rehabilitation program.  RSA is reviewing SSB and the Minnesota general agency this year.

The review began back in October with an examination of reports, state plans, data and numerous documents on our programs and services.  The entire review process cumulates with a final written report slated for late September.

RSA personnel were here in February and again last month looking at our programs.  They met with DEED and SSB staff, consumer organizations, the State Rehabilitation Council for the Blind, and community rehabilitation programs.  In exit interviews following their visits, they identified, on a preliminary basis, some areas of major concern.

One area was the allocation of costs in the Workforce Center system.  There concern extends beyond just SSB to the general agency.  We — SSB, the general agency and other partners in the Workforce Center system — are not waiting for a final report before acting on the concerns they identified.  Rather we are already taking the steps needed to address those concerns and hope to have remedies in place by this July.

An additional major concern was SSB’s employment rate and the portion of persons leaving our vocational program without employment.  As noted earlier, SSB has been very much aware of this problem, has enlisted assistance from a number of sources, and is working aggressively on this issue.

RSA voiced concern about the relationship between and decision-making authority of SSB, as the designated state unit, and the Department of Employment and Economic Development, as the designated state agency.  This concern also exists with the relationship between the general agency and the department.

A final concern identified was lack of strategic planning and use of data in decision-making by SSB.

We await their draft report later this summer and will welcome their suggestions and support in improving our organization and complying with federal requirements.


There have been several events important to SSB at the Capitol so far this session.

As of this meeting, passed and signed into law was a House–proposed cut of $119,000 to SSB’s base budget (for just the second year of the biennium).  While significant, it is much less than reductions offered by the Governor or the Senate.  The House version prevailed in no small part because of persons in this room showing up at the legislature and voicing their opinions.  Thank you very much for your active citizen participation in our democracy.

Last July the governor unalloted significant amounts including $178,000 from SSB’s budget.  Earlier this week the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled the unallotment actions “unlawful and void.”

We will see just how that ruling plays out.  I would not be surprised if there are additional reductions in SSB’s budget.

On a more positive note, passed was a law requiring rehabilitation counselors employed by SSB after January 1, 2011 to complete successfully a minimum of six weeks of intensive training under sleepshades.  This law codifies in statute the training policy recently developed and put in place at SSB. 

In conclusion, while much is happening at SSB to improve products and services, we still have a long way to go.  From a fiscal perspective, things are tough and will get tougher.  Assuming no further major reductions, we can weather the current biennium.  Of great concern is the next biennium, where a $5-7 billion shortfall looms.

SSB will be commencing a strategic planning effort next month.  We will also be convening a Rulemaking Advisory Committee as we move to update our Administrative Rule.

We are embarking on these and other critical tasks to shape the future of SSB.  They will have significant impact on the services you and other blind Minnesotans can expect from your agency.

I thank you for inviting me today.  Again, I ask for your support, assistance and partnership in these important endeavors.